That success brings with it increased expectations for the 2014 season. Unfortunately, the offseason also brought with it a buzzsaw falling in the Carolina receiving corps, which in turn has laid many of those expectations at the feet of a player who has yet to play a down in the NFL.
The Panthers made Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin their first pick of the 2014 NFL draft, selecting the 6'5", 240-pounder 28th overall.
It's not hard to see why the Panthers went the receiver route early.
In Steve Smith, Brandon Lafell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon, the Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from a year ago. Almost 60 percent of quarterback Cam Newton's 2013 production through the air came from passes directed at that quartet.
The team was able to make some free-agent additions in Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, but Avant and Cotchery are both over 30 and best suited to a role in the slot. Underwood is a sixth-year veteran who has never topped 500 yards in a season.
"Go-to" guys, they aren't.
With the Panthers expected to once again contend for a playoff spot in 2014, that places an enormous amount of pressure on Benjamin to grow up in a hurry.
Benjamin, for his part, isn't shying away from that pressure. As Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer reports, when Benjamin was asked about his expectations for his rookie year, his answer was to the point: "Win the Super Bowl," Benjamin said. "Add on to my national championship ring."
According to the Panthers' website, Benjamin will also spend the break before the start of training camp on July 25 working with Newton in Charlotte, where the fourth-year signal-caller continues to rehab from ankle surgery:
That's excellent news because the Panthers desperately need Benjamin to do everything in his power to accelerate his development at the professional level.
For all of Benjamin's impressive physical gifts (size, speed, ridiculously long arms, leaping ability), he remains very much a work in progress. As Rob Rang of CBSSports.com wrote before the draft, Benjamin is "still developing as a route-runner, adding to questions about his ability to play a large role immediately in the NFL."
Rang isn't the only pundit who feels Benjamin could be limited early in his career:
That's not what the Panthers want to hear at this point.
Of course, neither is this rather unflattering comparison Mike Mayock of the NFL Network made between Benjamin and other young wide receivers with a limited history of collegiate production:
He's 6-foot-5, 240 pounds with 35-inch arms, and you're talking about a catching radius. However, there's one thing about wide receivers with only one year of college production (like Benjamin at FSU) and it's a little sobering when you look at the names on that list: Stephen Hill, Greg Little, Devin Thomas, Anthony Gonzalez.
Now, it may not be entirely fair to compare Benjamin to those players, but it only underscores the reality that Benjamin isn't a mortal-lock, can't-miss prospect.
He's far from it in the opinion of Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon:
And in that respect, the expectations surrounding Benjamin may be the single biggest obstacle he has to overcome.
The fact is, the odds are against Benjamin making the sort of rookie impact yardage-wise that A.J. Green (1,057 yards, seven touchdowns) did for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 or Keenan Allen (1,046 yards, eight touchdowns) did last year. Both of those youngsters were much more NFL-ready, technically proficient receivers entering the league.
The touchdowns are a different story, as Benjamin's size and leaping ability scream red-zone threat. Fade route, anyone?
And that's the tightrope the Panthers will need to walk with Benjamin in 2014. Yes, the Panthers are seen as Super Bowl contenders by many fans, but they're also a very young team. It's important that the Panthers get Benjamin on the field in positions to succeed (and help the team) but don't hamper Benjamin's development by putting too much on his plate too early.
A smaller role that allows Benjamin to use his physical tools while not asking too much (limited packages and route trees) may be the wise bet in the early going. Don't sacrifice the future for the present's sake.
Of course, that's easier for this sportswriter to say than for the Panthers to do, and if you think the pressure on the kid is high now, just wait.
If Benjamin gets off to a slow start as a rookie and the Panthers come out of the gate 1-3 again, the pressure will hit Marianas Trench levels with speed and quickness.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.
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